What to Expect in Each of the Stages of Loss and Grief

David Hodel, MA, LMHCA, EMDR

Let me say up front, I am not entirely comfortable with the title to this article. Though there are usually common themes to grief, everyone grieves differently. Look up “stages of loss and grief” and you see 5 stages, 8 stages, 12 stages, and 6 months to 4 years as a time frame.

The fact is, there is no “right” way to do it. It is something that happens to you as waves happen to a beach. There are things you can do, however, to help you not get stuck along the way.

What You May Experience (Stages of Loss)

Denial/Dissociation/Shock

If the loss was a complete surprise, you can expect to experience a period of confusion, disbelief. People in this stage are typically unaware of their surroundings, unable to make decisions, and not safe behind the wheel of a car.

The initial shock should begin to wear off within a day or two, a week or two at the outside. This doesn’t mean you’re not still going in and out of being “spacey,” and often overcome with tears and sadness, but you should not be wandering around in a daze 24/7 or unable to get out of bed.

If you don’t start regaining the ability to make decisions within a week or two, see a mental health counselor or grief counselor to help you find a way to begin to move forward. Most people move in and out of feelings of disbelief for the first few months.

This is normal. If disbelief becomes delusion, such as the mother who keeps making a deceased child’s lunch, this again would be time to see a mental health counselor.

Pain

This will likely be strong, nearly intolerable at first. Let tears come if they want to. This is not a time to “tough it out.” There is a reason Jerusalem has a “wailing wall” – our emotions are made to come out. If it becomes intolerable, you will know, because you will stop being able to function.

In this case, someone else will likely refer you to a higher level of care. You may feel like you are losing your mind or that it is going to kill you. Typically, if you can have these thoughts it means that neither outcome is likely.

The adage “time heals all wounds” holds true here. The pain should begin to subside within six months, becoming intermittent. If there is no noticeable change or decrease in the pain over the space of six months, you are stuck, and it would be good to get some professional help.

If you have thoughts of harming self or others, or suicidal thoughts, this would be an important time call emergency services (911) or if symptoms are not severe, to set up an appointment with a mental health professional.

Anger

Depending on the circumstances of the loss, you may feel anger or rage at someone you hold responsible. People often feel angry at the object of loss, a wife angry at her husband for leaving her (by dying), or a mother angry at a son for making a foolish choice that cost him his life. Again, these feelings are normal. Let yourself off the hook. Your anger is real and legitimate and does not make you a bad person.

Taking it out on someone is never okay, however, and if you need help managing that impulse, you guessed it, that would be the time to call a mental health professional. Like the feelings of pain, feelings of anger should subside and become intermittent over six months and if there is no change in that time it is time to seek treatment.

Guilt

Again, depending on the circumstances of the loss, you may experience feelings of guilt, possibly justified if you were somehow responsible. This is the land of “what if” and “if only” where we replay the event over and over.

This is what people mean when they say, “wallowing in guilt.” This is a waste of time. It may be unavoidable at first, but these feelings also should subside and become intermittent over time. Don’t blame yourself for being human, being flawed, or making mistakes.

There may be a hundred ways you could have done it differently, but you will stop progressing through your grief if you indulge them. It is in the past and we cannot change it.

You may be telling yourself that “I did my best, based on the available information,” or “I made a bad choice and wish I had it to do over again,” or “I desperately wish it had been a different outcome, but beating myself up will not help me move through my grief, which should be my goal. Nobody is served by me punishing myself.”

Depression

Feelings of depression are common after a significant loss. We may go through days or sometimes weeks of not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. Feelings of hopelessness or despair may swirl around us for a time.

Here again, we should be moving through those feelings over the first weeks and months and not entertaining them. We get to choose what plays in the theater of our mind. It is important to monitor your feelings of depression and watch for a downward spiral.

If your depression moves into despair and desolation and hopelessness, this can be a dangerous place to be. As stated above, if your symptoms lead to a desire to harm self or suicidal thoughts, call Emergency Services (911) or if less severe, engage the services of a mental health professional or grief counselor.

Any of these emotions can come in waves. The only way out is through. If you are moving through, you will find the initial onslaught of feelings begin to ebb. The time between waves ranges from seconds to minutes, to hours, to days, to weeks, and eventually months between floods of emotions.

Don’t let anyone tell you, “Hey, I thought you were over this.” It comes when it comes and you need to let it, like a rainstorm, come and go, move on through. Your feelings will find a way out if you let them.

At some point in the first six months, you should reach a point that you feel you are “turning a corner.” The loss is not the only thing you can think about, you’re able to make plans, and forget about it for a while.

You may feel guilt for forgetting, but while you have a working mind on this Earth, you will not forget completely. It is only right that you move on with your life. Part of that is not wasting time dwelling on the loss, and by that, I mean keeping it front and center in your thoughts.

Life, as they say, is for the living. This is why we need to move through our grief into acceptance and even hope and get help when we’re stuck.

Getting Help

If at any point along the way you feel you are stuck in one of the stages of loss, unable to move forward or unable to begin living your life again, this would be a good time to contact a mental health professional. Many of them will be able to help you with grief, complex grief, depression, anxiety, and other issues that may come up.

Another great resource is a grief group. Some churches have grief groups running throughout the year. With social distancing restrictions, you might find that people have found a way to meet online.

Many of us want to isolate when we are grieving, to be alone with our sadness and pain, partly because we hate feeling vulnerable and other people feel like an intrusion. Some alone time is fine and healthy, but if one of the features of our alone time is unhealthy dwelling on the loss, feelings of hopelessness, despair, or self-harm, then it is time to reach out and connect with safe people who can guide and comfort us through this transition.

If you search online for grief resources in your area, if you are near a metropolitan area like Seattle, you will find grief support groups associated with hospitals, or insurance companies (bereavement support). Most places that offer mental health services will be able to get you connected to someone or a group that can help you process your grief and better understand the different stages of loss.

The important thing is to monitor yourself, notice if you are slipping into despair, take steps to turn it around through positive activity and human connection, and if you can’t turn it around, ask for help. You do not have to go through the stages of loss and grief alone.

Photos:
“Lost in the Woods”, Courtesy of Tom Morel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Rugged Path”, Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Face in Hands”, Courtesy of Francisco Gonzalez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Down”, Courtesy of Arif Riyanto, Unsplash.com, CC0 License

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By |2020-06-10T16:59:10+00:00June 8th, 2020|General, Grief|